Art Stemming from STEM

Two Fall 2016 exhibitions

Since the publication of the “Rhythm of Structure: MathArt in the African Diaspora” print IRAAA issue in 2004, the journal has covered the influence of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and architecture on visual artists of African descent, and we’ve noticed how their STEM interests have continued to evolve.

Two STEM-influenced artists showing this fall are Matthew Angelo Harrison and Eric Mack.

Detroit City/Detroit Affinities: Matthew Angelo Harrison, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, September 9, 2016–January 1, 2017

Matthew Angelo Harrison, The Consequence of Platforms, 2016, aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic, marble, 75 x 33.5 x 33.5”. Image courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman GalleryNelson Goodman's theories on human cognition and practice, which touch on everything from logic to epistemology, science to aesthetics, are considered some of the most complex yet coherent ideas in postwar American philosophy. Particularly influential was his book The Structure of Appearance (1951), which offers an intricate analysis of the conditions behind systems of societal and scientific concern and introduces the concept of irrealism: the simultaneous existence of various realities within one another. It asserts that the world is, in itself, no more one way than another, and that neither is humanity.

Matthew Angelo HarrisonThis book was of great importance to the Detroit-based artist Matthew Angelo Harrison (b. 1989), who in his late teens took a deep interest in philosophy through Goodman's writings and in particular his work on art. Harrison was inspired to delve into contemporary art and eventually to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Matthew Angelo Harrison, The Consequence of Platforms, 2016, detailHarrison is interested in the construction of systems and the possible relativity of the world around us. He does not think in closed and resolved terms but embraces open-endedness in a way that is perhaps typical for artists of his generation; his outlook combines a strong sense of community, both local and global, with the systems of the digital world. He is interested in aspects of manufacturing, in particular its often-hidden performative aspect. The artist closely studies the aesthetics of prototypes and carries over into his own practice the anticipatory feeling of the unfinished object.

Three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for almost four decades, but only in the last ten years has it become practical and affordable for individuals outside industry. The printers use a series of coordinated stepper motors to distribute material in specific places so as to build objects in many layers, in a time-consuming and often-monotonous process. It has in many ways revolutionized thinking around the production of art (if not yet the making of art); very interesting in the context of Detroit, the birthplace of assembly line, is the idea that 3D printing might signal the beginning of a third industrial revolution succeeding the Fordist production process introduced in that city at the outset of the 20th century. 

Harrison's 3D printers are not the sophisticated high-tech equipment typically found in industrial production facilities. All of his devices are homemade constructions, DIY gadgets with low-tech parts put together by the artist himself, suggesting more kinship with abstract sculpture than with anything state-of-the-art. They combine minimalist aesthetics with the industrial look of open-source hardware. And not only are the machines homemade, but so is most of their software. Harrison's printers use clay rather than the more common plastics. This gives the artist the ability to build large volumes rapidly and to change at any moment the form of a sculpture being produced. 

Matthew Angelo Harrison, The Consequence of Platforms, 2016, detailThe 3D printers on view at MOCAD use computer aided design (CAD) files, created via a 3D scanner, to print replicas of traditional African masks. Harrison is less interested in the masks as ceremonial or aesthetic objects and more into drastically changing our perception of something by replicating it in unlikely materials. A historical African mask is re-created by using a FaceGen process in which CAD files are specifically used to sculpt human faces, connecting the tribal and seemingly exotic world of Africa with the DYI sphere of the digital age. 

The tension between authentic and inauthentic, organic and nonorganic, and the pull among repetition and difference, original and clone, nature and culture, all play a major part in Harrison's artistic considerations.


Another Harrison series consists of transparent, highly polished acrylic boxes and benches and large bones of African animals. While the boxes and benches might recall the work of John McCracken, Larry Bell, and other fetish finish Minimalists of the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of "(hand)crafted to perfection" so important to those sculptors has been entirely replaced in the popular imagination by the kind of surface perfection possible thanks to automation and precision machinery.

Harrison is a native Detroiter. He grew up Grosse Pointe and is no stranger to the complicated discussions around class and race that are pertinent to the city's history and current realities. While he sees his work as firmly part of conversations around African and African American experience, the work simultaneously has qualities that are universal, and that have the potential to creep into many other cultural spaces. Harrison sees race as peripheral to human experience and is interested in finding a way to make art that can transcend it. Yet he has also stated unequivocally that to avoid discussing racial issues in his work would be to dismiss some of his central concerns.

Because Harrison's 3D printers will produce the new works in the gallery, museum staff and visitors will not fully know what form the final exhibition will take.  Part of the show's appeal is the viewers' anticipation of the realization of Harrison's unique concept and that anticipation will build when the artwork is created in front of their own eyes. 

Impossible Architectures: The Work of Eric Mack, the Stone Center’s Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, November 3 through January 6, 2017

As Eric Mack (b. 1976) grew up in the 1980s, so did the personal computer and hip hop culture.  So it's not surprising that, shortly after he graduated from the Atlanta College of Art, Mack developed a style of painting on computer circuit boards and a collage technique influenced by DJ sampling, scratching and splicing. 

Eric Mack, SRFC-9, 2013, mixed mediums on canvas, 10 x 12”Mack now employs a strong architectonic and technical visual vocabulary in compositions that are often built up from grids. 

One factor in Mack's incorporation of visual elements from technologies into his art stems (i.e., emanates in a STEM-like way) from his upbringing.  Mack's father is an electrical engineer.

Eric Mack refers to “signs of technological advances, schematical diagrams, component dials and switches” in describing the iconography of his work. He likes “their fundamental form.”

Eric Mack, RSRFC-031976, 2016, mixed mediums on canvas, 60 x 62Mack created the cover of the 2015 “On Architecture” issue of the print IRAAA. The design was based on an architect’s interior plan for a center for which he had been commissioned to paint a mural. 

In a note that appeared in the “On Architecture” issue, Mack said that he’s been influenced by the Neofuturist movments in architecture and Constructivist movements in painting which are based on the plane and geometries of three-dimensional structures. Some of his works, such as SRFC-9, are in the mode of Deconstructivism, in which, as he explains, “forms are broken up into decomposed gemometries — pieces and shards — and built back up into one composition.”  He also said he admires the work of the late Zaha Hadid who studied under Rem Koolhaus — both "leading architects working with Neofuturist and Deconstructivist aesthetics.”  

Eric Mack in his studioThe November 3, 2016 opening reception for Impossible Architectures: The Work of Eric Mack will feature a talk by the Atlanta-based artist.

For more IRAAA+ reporting on this artist, see the "Eric Mack E=M" article.